Category Archives: OOO

Dark Ecology. What’s a Human—to Do?

by Randall Honold
Co-director, Institute for Nature and Culture, DePaul University

 

Thoughts prompted by Timothy Morton’s Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence

Remember the end? I’m recalling all the “end of . . . ” books that started pouring out around twenty years ago. We read about the end of history, nature, faith, poverty, men, globalization, power, Europe, imagination – even absence. Maybe because we love a good ending when we see one we start seeing them everywhere. Or maybe we love resolution no matter what comes next. There’s a kind of end-logic we get trapped by: either we’re pouring accelerant on the flames of decline or we’re cynically indifferent to the suffering in front of us: “Everything has to end sometime – c’est la vie!” Of course, nothing that has been ending has actually ended. We don’t know how to see the end to the end, it appears. The past persists.

Black Square.2

Today we’re grappling with the meaning of the end of the Holocene, from here and now at the onset of the Anthropocene. Coming to realize that we humans changing the earth may be a defining event for both the earth and humans. Who are we humans and what is the earth after the end (better: during the ending) of the Holocene? What might our entwined future(s) look like?

We need help thinking about who and what we all are at beginning of the first geological era to which we’ve given our name. Even if at first that help doesn’t look like a guiding hand but a dead sparrow on our doorstep. Even if in the welcoming of help we let go of what we thought we were and invite across the threshold what we didn’t want to admit was already here for some time.

DarkEcology

Timothy Morton’s Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence is the kind of object we need to help us think what we are and what to do about it. Calling the book an “object” sounds like I’m reducing it to a single instrument but no – it’s a rich, dense, diverse collective of reflections that unfurls like a growing crystal, its fractal structure embodying one of Morton’s main ideas, that reality is a loop of objects resisting organization by a larger ideal. And like all objects, the book gets weirder the more I interact with it. Which brings me to what its title describes, “dark ecology.”

What happens to us if we practice dark ecology? That is, what happens to the meaning of us and what kinds of actions do we end up taking? Since Rimbaud, at least, we’ve known that “I is another.” That knowledge in itself isn’t enough to twist free of what Morton calls agrilogistics, the roughly twelve-thousand year tradition of rearranging the earth in order to stabilize ourselves. Furthermore epistemology itself probably isn’t tweakable any further. The knowledge we have and the ways of knowing we practice are plenty satisfactory for making it through the ecological crisis. Imperator Furiosa and Max Rockatansky made it across the wasteland and back on far less! Our fate is tied to a very large number of equally non-selvish beings that we can’t fully know but we always already coexist with aesthetically. Practicing dark ecology isn’t something esoteric or obscure; it’s kind of a continual reorientation toward the equally mysterious beings we’re already coexisting with.

Dark ecology entails practicing intimacy in as many ways as possible. It amounts to compassion, really, consonant with Tibetan Buddhism practiced by Morton.  Every manifestation of compassion arises from an orientation that has been open to suffering. Robert Thurman says suffering alerts us to the fact that we are not being aware of what we really are. For at least a couple of thousand years we’ve tried applying a variety of Anthropocentric therapies to this lack of awareness, intended to restore us to the larger whole we’ve fallen from and redeem our suffering. But that’s not what we need at the onset of the Anthropocene. We’re in a time that’s pretty clearly defined by our futility at getting on top or to the bottom of wicked problems of our own making (cue global warming, species extinction, fresh water depletion, and even the end of sand!). What if there isn’t a big Nature to get back to, an Environment to clean up, an Earth to become one with? Would it be so bad for these big old Beings to come to an end? What if we follow Morton and experiment with Anthropocenic anti-therapies which yield results consistent with increasing intimate coexistence with ourselves and other objects?

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SPF 2017 (Subscendence Perpetration Formation).  Directions: Apply liberally and often.

Tim Morton
Image Sources:

https://environmentalcritique.wordpress.com/2017/06/02/what-is-the-lay-of-the-land-part-ii/

https://cup.columbia.edu/book/dark-ecology/9780231177528

http://archinect.com/features/article/149934079/timothy-morton-on-haunted-architecture-dark-ecology-and-other-objects

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Timothy Morton: University of Chicago Lecture

tim-morton_web2
Oct 23, 2016, 2PM

Kent Hall, Room 107
1020 E 58th St
[view map]

In Urth, Ben Rivers partially draws on the work of philosopher Timothy Morton, who offers vivid new perspectives 
on ecological thinking, our uncanny interconnectedness with the nonhuman, and the future to come.

In his latest book, Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence (2016), Morton argues that ecological awareness in the present Anthropocene era takes the form of a strange loop or Möbius strip, twisted to have only one side. Deckard travels this oedipal path in Blade Runner (1982) when he learns that he might be the enemy he has been ordered to pursue. Ecological awareness takes this shape because ecological phenomena have a loop form that is also fundamental to the structure of how things are.

The logistics of agricultural society resulted in global warming and hardwired dangerous ideas about life-forms into the human mind. Dark ecology puts us in an uncanny position of radical self-knowledge, illuminating our place in the biosphere and our belonging to a species in a sense that is far less obvious than we like to think. Morton explores the logical foundations of the ecological crisis, which is suffused with the melancholy and negativity of coexistence yet evolving, as we explore its loop form, into something playful, anarchic, and comedic. His work is a skilled fusion of humanities and scientific scholarship, incorporating the theories and findings of philosophy, anthropology, literature, ecology, biology, and physics. Morton hopes to reestablish our ties to nonhuman beings and to help us rediscover the playfulness and joy that can brighten the dark, strange loop we traverse.

This event is presented in partnership with the Arts, Science & Culture Initiative, the Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge, and the Open Practice Committee of the Department of Visual Arts, all at the University of Chicago, and the Seminary Co-op Bookstore.

Timothy Morton is Rita Shea Guffey Chair in English at Rice University. His books include Ecology Without Nature (2007); The Ecological Thought (2010); Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World (2013); and Realist Magic: Objects, Ontology, Causality (2013); and he has published more than 150 essays on ecology, philosophy, art, literature, music, architecture, and food. He has collaborated with several artists, including Björk, Olafur Eliasson, and Haim Steinbach, and blogs regularly at ecologywithoutnature.blogspot.com.

urth-13

Related Exhibition

Ben Rivers
Urth

Sep 10–Nov 06, 2016

Source: http://www.renaissancesociety.org/events/1156/timothy-morton/

 

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Doug Fogelson – Destructive Transformations

 

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“Doug Fogelson’s inquisitive practice in photography echoes the experimentation that was central to the medium’s inception. For the better part of 20 years, Fogelson has consistently produced seductive imagery while investigating unsettling issues (e.g., climate change).”

Source: Doug Fogelson – Destructive Transformations

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The Quadruple Object and Weird Realism

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Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy is an eccentric monograph that misses various marks of contemporary literary criticism and yet presents a useful tool for reading weird literature. Harman’s References to a few Mid-Century Modern critics including Edmund Wilson and Cleanth Brooks effectively dismisses criticism published in the last fifty years. Admittedly this Cthulu-like body of data is daunting even for literary critics, but Harman doesn’t even gesture to the current discipline. Harman interprets one hundred passages from the major works in the order that they appear, further undermining his own promising thesis with this bare method. The monograph is also repeatedly derailed by secondary arguments about paraphrase, and comedy and tragedy, which contribute little to the overall thesis. Nevertheless Harman’s primary conceit is original, and his application persuasive enough to warrant the serious attention it has received from a cross-section of the critical theoretical community. Within the context of speculative realism, “hyperobjects,” alien phenomenology, and panpsychism, the weird has become a category not only for fiction and philosophy, but also for contemporary readings of the built and natural environment, and the fuzzy borders between any number of given categories of experience.

Let me summarize Harman’s thesis, which is closely based on the “new fourfold,” introduced in his Tool-Being, and the focus of The Quadruple Object. Harman’s matrix is derived from combining Husserl’s distinction between qualities and objects, and Heidegger’s distinction between sensual the real objects (4-6). (Sensual objects appear to the subject; real objects categorically withdraw, even from themselves.) From these two axes Harman arrives at sensual objects (SO), real objects (RO), sensual qualities (SQ), and real qualities (RQ). This fourfold is intended as four aspects of all objects (rather that four categories of objects). Nevertheless, these four aspects interrelate in distinct ways, and these interrelationships are the focus on Harman’s “ontography,” as well as his reading of Lovecraft.  (See a recent review of The Quadruple Object here, though the present post contains a better summary of Harman’s basic thesis in that work.)

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Sensual objects are comprised of sensual qualities but are distinct from those qualities because not all qualities of a sensual object are apparent at once. Sensual objects and their sensual qualities are accessible but dynamic. Thus Harman denotes this relationship (SO-SQ) as “time” (32). Because they withdraw, real objects do not interact with one another; however, real objects can interact with sensual objects. The relationship between real objects and sensual qualities (RO-SQ) is termed “space” because both withdrawal and access are presumed to occur within this dimension (239). Real objects also have real qualities. Neither is accessible, but real qualities differ from sensual qualities because they cannot be separated from the object—hence Harman’s choice of “essence” to define the RO-RQ relationship. And real qualities can indirectly affect sensual objects. This indirect relationship (SO–RQ), is illustrated by the visible effects of an inaccessible object, like Harman’s example of a black hole indicated by swirling light (238). Harman argues, referencing Husserl, that we can derive real qualities from sensual objects through a form of theoretical inference he terms “eidos” (31-32). This scheme does not exhaust the possible relationship between the four aspects of an object or between two fourfold objects; however, it provides a powerful heuristic for understanding allusive language and for reading literature, which is categorically allusive.

Harman claims that Lovecraft, as “a writer of gaps and horror” is the poet laureate of object-oriented philosophy (2, 5, 32). Eliding for a moment the unfortunate resonances between Lovecraft’s racism and Heidegger’s fascism, we can readily appreciate Lovecraft as a chronicler of weird objects, and more so when we see his work through the prism of Harman’s “ontogrpahy” (33). Here are four examples that may be considered emblematic of Harman’s thesis.

A central figure in Lovecraft’s “At the Mountain of Madness” and Harman’s discussion is an alien, “Cyclopean” Antarctic city of incomprehensibly strange and complex geometry and design (165-66). Harman compares Lovecraft’s description to a cubist painting (197). The object is presented from myriad, conflicting, perspectives and yet it remains impossible to grasp as a whole, in “time.” Harman identifies this moment as a tension between a sensual object and its sensual qualities (234). The proliferation of sensual qualities suggests a sensual object that might potentially be grasped, and yet remains elusive.

Lovecraft’s famous Cthulu idol/monster represents the tension between real objects and sensual qualities (RO-SQ). The monster is described with the sensual qualities of an octopus and a dragon, for example, but Lovecraft makes clear that no combination of these qualities approaches a description of the thing itself, which withdraws from its sensual qualities (237–38). Like many science-fiction monsters, Chtulu exceeds our comprehension in scale, nomenclature, motivation, and sheer potential. Under Harman’s sign of “space,” it is alarmingly present and yet “absolutely distant” (239).

A third example is a concept with withdraws on all levels, though as Harman notes this is rarer in Lovecraft’s corpus. “The Dreams in the Witch House” alludes to a “blind idiot god Azothoth“ through various literary tropes, but Lovecraft makes clear that these tropes merely cloak a “monstrous nuclear chaos” (234-35). Language indicates an absent presence: “both the object and its features resist all description” (234). Azohoth is a real object with real qualities (RO-RQ) but lacking any accessible sensual qualities. This is an example of Harman’s “essence.”

A final example is a controversy in “At the Mountain of Madness,” concerning fragments of slate which elude scientific testing. This example represents a tension between a sensual object and real qualities (SO- RQ). While we have come to expect that the scientific method is a means of inferring real qualities through sensual objects (“eidos”), the common sci-fi trope of introducing objects, such as space matter or alien technology, that remain resistant to scientific scrutiny illustrates a tension between sensual objects and real qualities (151-53). The confounded scientists identify sensual qualities, but these qualities have no relation to existing sensual object or their real qualities. Thus a sensual object can be present while resisting eidetic processes (235).

Harman’s arguments are often hard to follow, but generally worth the effort. However the most perplexing moment in Weird Realism is the discussion of Lovecraft’s racist stereotypes. (See previous Environmental Critique post on Lovecraft here.)  Harman acknowledges that these representations create an atmosphere of anxiety and panic, but misses an opportunity to explore a fairly obvious relationship between race and “ontography.” A racist stereotype is patently a tension between a sensual object and a real object. And socio-cultural biases in general can be confounded by counterexamples, in which sensual qualities exceed their sensual objects. Indeed, the process of destroying stereotypes might be described as circulating sensual qualities that challenge stereotypes as sensual objects. In this sense Lovecraft falls short as a writer for our time, and Harman misses a cue to connect object-oriented philosophy, science fiction, and race. Weird Realism provides a model for understanding some other monstrous aspects of contemporary culture, however, through Harman’s association with the common topoi of object-oriented philosophy at large.

As I implied in my introductory comments, Cluthu is like big data. We can access parts of the object, but we can never apprehend the whole, and have few reasons to believe the creature is subject to our control. Even more frightening may be a feeling that we are compelled to interact with this monster—that we are in a sense hypnotized. We see the effects of information but cannot grasp the sensual object. Similar comparisons could be made to other hyperobjects such as transnational consumer capitalism and anthropogenic climate change.

And so, inevitably, to the Anthropocene.  While some writers and critics see nature or human beings as the problem, it may be more accurate to say that human culture is the problem, or rather some contemporary aspects of human culture, both familiar and strangely beyond our grasp.  While pundits point fingers at corporations that profit from consumer culture, the monster may be closer to home.  It may be that the formless leviathan of the consumer is to blame.  This incomprehensibly complex hydra, with a widely distributed, prosthetic brain, billions of blind eyes, and an insatiable appetite for resources, amoral, seemingly immortal, and yet withdrawn from its animal, technological, and alien qualities (sensual and real), has become our intimate, our paramour, but seems completely beyond our most advanced cultures of discipline and control (be very afraid).

And yet hyperobjects are more frightening if we remain self-important, assuming they are out to get us—that we are the object of “alien” aggression.  Indifference is not aggression, there are no antagonists, and we are not tragic heroes.  Imagining “nature” or “culture” is poised to destroy us may be sheer adolescent, if not infantile, narcissism.  And if fear of a faceless, aggressive other is a contributing factor to paralysis, then perhaps getting over our selves might help to focus our own actions and energies and motivate sustained meliorative action.  Rather than preparing to fight off alien others, we could begin by recognizing the alien self, which categorically withdraws from our fortified self-image.  Alluding to Jeff VanderMeer’s contemporary weird fiction, acceptance may be a productive stance. (See previous EC post here.)[i]  I don’t mean that we should accept the status quo, but rather accept the uncomplicated responsibility to clean up our ecological mess, whether or not such reparations will ultimately benefit what we heretofore recognize as our kind.

 

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Image credits:

  1. http://zero-books.net/blogs/zero/weird-realism-lovecraft-and-philosophy-graham-harman/
  2. http://www.zero-books.net/books/quadruple-object-the
  3. http://io9.gizmodo.com/acceptance-proves-weird-stories-are-the-best-way-to-und-1686164322

 

[i] See additional Environmental Critique posts on Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy here.

 

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The Quadruple Object Revisited

india_figure-7 

A philosopher, a biologist, a rhetorician, and an anthropologist walk into a bar to discuss The Quadruple Object.[i] The philosopher says, “It’s not Heidegger.” The biologist says, “He’s discovered the scientific method.” The rhetorician says, “I thought metaphysics was dead.” And the anthropologist asks, “Is this a mandala?”

What follows is neither a summary of, nor belated initial response to Graham Harman’s The Quadruple Object (2011). That moment has passed. Though many readers didn’t quite grasp the book, the critical theoretical community has been experimenting with Harman’s key terms in various contexts. This is because much of the work is compelling and memorable, though the whole is a little obscure. I will use the comic scenario in my opening as a point of departure for discussing some stumbling blocks in The Quadruple Object, before arguing that the text deserves to be revisited and reconsidered. I assume a basic familiarity with the text. (The uninitiated should begin here; I’ve also recently posted a summary of Harman’s fourfold here.)

“It’s not Heidegger.“  Yes, this book isn’t about Heidegger. The Quadruple Object is not a reading, let alone a close reading, of any philosopher, and Harman makes no claims to that effect. This may be a stumbling block for the academic community, however, because the book is famously based on Harman’s Tool-Being which is about Heidegger (though not Heidegger). Revisiting even a few sections of Heidegger will confirm that The Quadruple Object is not Heidegger, not altogether a bad thing.  Nevertheless, The Quadruple Object effectively directs our attention to Heidegger, and some of the best parts.

Comparing TQO[ii] to the scientific method may not be a misreading.  Bacon, Locke, and Hume, fathers of empiricism, were far from naïve about access to objects. Bacon and Locke, more tentative in their assertions than Hume, might not only grasp, but also deeply appreciate Harman’s new fourfold. Bacon’s Idols foreground perception without bracketing reality, for example, and Locke struggled to balance under-standing with a desire to grasp things. The work of these philosophers has little to do with contemporary materialism and positivism, however. Harman is not a materialist, which is confusing since he critiques idealism (and some readers might assume a two-party system). Nor is he a positivist, though his engagement with metaphysics and “the real” may throw off those of us raised on critiques of essentialism.

This brings us to the rhetorician.  In the 1990’s critical theorists repeatedly announced the death of metaphysics. This was confusing because every theoretical “death” was hailed as a distinct event.  But, as I recall, the late twentieth-century complaint with metaphysics wasn’t so much philosophical (read, phenomenological) as ethical.  At the birth of identity politics, essences, meta-narratives, and  transcendent values were generally frowned upon, with good reason. This is not to say that Harman’s metaphysics are categorically insensitive to race, class, and gender, all of which may be productively understood as quadruple objects. However, metaphysics is a stumbling block, and in this book Harman appears unaware of the not entirely stale critiques (though he gestures to them in the Introduction to Guerilla Metaphysics).  Moreover, it’s not clear in the text why TQO must be a metaphysics (except to assert it’s not merely an epistemology).  Harman’s invention of partial access seems both more and less than metaphysics (as we know it), however, and metaphysics seems unnecessary to broad application of his thesis.

If the anthropologist thinks Harman’s fourfold evokes a mandala, s/he may not be far off the mark. The mandala, as a fourfold archetypal representation of the psyche evokes Jung (always in productive tension with Freud), as well as Lacan’s “four discourses.”  (See Levi Bryant’s A Democracy of Object, section 4.4.)  Harman discusses the psyche at length, but possibly with insufficient self-consciousness regarding his overall system. (And what about Deleuze’s Leibniz book, The Fold?)  Folding, unfolding, and fourfolds are ubiquitous archetypal tropes. This is both a stumbling block and strength of the work. Harman admits that TQO may seem too systematic, but he also remains in thrall to the genius of his particular system. As in the case of his discussion of metaphysics, we might find him insufficiently urbane here. I do think the system is productive beyond what anyone has imagined, with the exception of Ian Bogost who has suggested that TQO is a magnum opus in a deceptively small package. But TQO only opens up, for us, if we can overcome our uneasiness with Harman’s sweeping gestures. If this is a conception of “the world,” then it must also be a limited view of the world as a sensual object, and this comment (admittedly), a limited view of TQO as sensual object.

I will now offer a paean to TQO using the text as a heuristic scheme. Let me begin with a very brief defense of the text as a sensual object (SO).  If a sensual object is not identical to its qualities, and these qualities emerge over time, then TQO cannot be reduced to its initial bifurcated reception—caught up in a “political” struggle, praised by friends and snubbed by enemies of Object-Oriented Philosophy.  Whether or not the book ultimately deserves praise or blame, I would like to see future evaluations (in bars and such) linked more closely to the work’s particular qualities.

Let’s imagine my opening fantasy of stumbling blockheads as a reference to one set of TQO sensual qualities (SQ).  Now, let me balance these with some readily accessible points of praise for the work. TQO has been enthusiastically received by scholars and artists in various fields, and has invited them to explore Harman’s Tool Being, and Heidegger’s tool-analysis. For this reason, I think TQO is a relevant and successful work of philosophy (as love of wisdom rather than intellectual sparing). Particularly productive have been ecological applications, where TQO dovetails beautifully with Morton’s concept of “hyperobjects,” for example. TQO is obviously relevant to information technology, media studies, and the big questions of AI. Harman’s ontography also plays well with “carpentry,” as a coherent and fruitful, object-oriented aesthetic, as well as an allusion to real art as a hands-on mode of discovery. (See Graham Harman’s Guerilla Metaphysics and Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology.)  Though political connections may be less obvious, TQO could productively be deployed to understand various forms of systemic discrimination and the technologies through which prejudices are iterated and dispelled.  I also think TQO could be influential on psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience.  Although TQO isn’t Heidegger, it is psychology.  The sciences and social sciences may come to understand and appreciate the value of Harman’s philosophical model, though its potential in this context might be in a cultural trade-off relationship with its rhetorical potential to critique scientific discourse.

Going back to my fictitious anthropologist, I propose that the real TQO is a mandala, in the sense of a representation that contains and affects the world. Alternatively TQO is Schopenhauer’s The Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason and also the Upanishads (which Schopenhauer intuited before reading the Upanishads).  Yes, these are wildly speculative metaphors, but no one cannot access the real object (RO) directly, because it categorically withdraws.  On a more serious note, Harman comes very close to illustrating that objects enfold the world, just as the world enfolds objects (and, we can assume, worlds enfold worlds). Such inversions are key topoi of folding as an archetypal figure, and reflecting on the archetype may be an eidetic approach to TQO as a real object. If we read the fourfold as an iterated, open structure, we may see a wildly productive concept withdrawn even from Harman (Harman would agree). Perhaps this is not Harman, but to the extent that Harman invokes Heidegger, Husserl, and Leibniz . . . TQO also enfolds the dizzying heights and depths of philosophical thought broadly distributed over time and space.

What about real qualities? While an object is depthless in its withdrawal, TQO invites us to imagine the real object as an infinite set of real qualities (RQ), also real objects with relations. Qualities, both sensual and real, are also objects in Harman’s scheme (though real objects can only relate to sensual objects). I don’t mean to confuse matters or flip the infinite into mystical monism here. The discourse of objects assumes more than one, critics will hasten to point out, and that argument is far from settled.  I’ve never been invested in partisan politics.  Nevertheless I share  Bogost’s opinion that The Quadruple Object can function as a relatively small opening into a much more complex analysis.

Coming soon to Environmental Critique—comments on Harman’s Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy and the strangeness of ecology.

Image Credit:  SAH Blog, Northern India: The Golden Triangle

[i] Slavoj Zizek interrupts them.

[ii] Please advise of a better or better-known short hand—I’m beginning to think that enunciation is the first stumbling block.

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Grateful Undead: Timothy Morton on Object Oriented Ontology, reposted from Ecology Without Nature

We Are Only Just Getting Started

One commenter (see below) worries that because of an essay she or he read online, which said that SR/OOO is dead, we are dead. She or he asked me to respond, and I feel inspired to, so:

1. Saying something is true doesn’t make it true.

I don’t know whether the commenter is a scholar or not, but in Humanities world, as everywhere else, you can try to get what you want by turning your feeling or your order into a third person statement.

It’s tricky if your statement is too transparent, in other words if it’s not difficult to see the person having an emotion inside it.

2. The statement is more than outweighed by the welter of emails I get every day from high school students all over the shop, and artists in India, Brazil, Norway, Australia, Russia (and on and on and on) asking to clarify points relating to my school of thought, or asking for me to collaborate on something related to OOO. I’m not counting the scholars who are constantly writing with various kinds of message. “Scholars” here means undergraduates, graduates, and people with Ph.D.s (employed or not).

I’m sure this is also true for Harman and Bogost, not to mention the loads of other scholars in other SR domains.

2.a. Example: I’m opening Olafur Eliasson’s big exhibition in Stockholm in a few weeks’ time. He is very into OOO.

b. Björk. (Hello mate!)

Continue reading here.
Also see “Explaining Object Oriented Ontology to your non-OOO friends” here.

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BRUNO LATOUR: REASSEMBLING THE POLITICAL, BY GRAHAM HARMAN

Will the real objects of politics please stand up?

by Adrian Ivakhiv

Excerpted by permission.   Keep reading at Global Discourse: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Current Affairs and Applied Contemporary Thought,  04 Mar. 2015.  (See link beneath article.)

BRUNO LATOUR: REASSEMBLING THE POLITICAL, by Graham Harman, London, Pluto Press, 2014, 216 pp., £19.99 (paperback), ISBN 978-0745333991

Bruno Latour: Reassembling the Political continues Graham Harman’s project, begun with Prince of Networks (2009), to present anthropologist of science Latour as an important philosophical figure for our time. As the first book devoted to Latour’s political philosophy, Harman’s is a groundbreaking work that carefully situates Latour’s thinking amidst an array of political philosophers of the left and right. As with his earlier volume on Latour, Harman writes judiciously here, carefully weighing out alternative interpretations while positioning both Latour’s and his own as pointing toward a sensible ‘middle way.’ While the writing occasionally deviates into caricatures and sideswipes at rivals – from Ray Brassier and the process-philosophical wing of speculative realism to the trendy hard left voices that dominate today’s Continental philosophy scene – the larger argument is presented cogently.

As with his writings on object-oriented ontology, or OOO – the philosophical movement that Harman has spearheaded over several books, numerous interviews, countless articles, and an endless stream of blog posts – Harman begins here with a useful, if oversimplified, schematic mapping of a complex terrain. With OOO, the mapping takes the form of two binary pairs: one distinguishing the real from the sensual, another distinguishing objects from qualities. The result posits four types of things in the universe – real objects, sensual objects, real qualities, and sensual qualities – and four ‘tensions’ between them, which he labels time, space, essence, and eidos. In Reassembling the Political, Harman also presents a conceptual fourfold, but here it is made of two axes rather than binaries: the first counterposes the political Left from the Right, and the second counterposes Truth to Power. Left is defined as belief in the goodness of human nature, and Right as its opposite, the belief that human nature must be curtailed by law; Truth is defined as belief in the accessibility or knowability of Truth in some form, and Power as its opposite – a belief in the lack of Truth and the consequent need for Power alone. These are, of course, false dichotomies: either in the sense that their existence belies the truth of the middle (human nature is neither good nor evil, but is simply what it is – an evolved, partially stabilized yet still-changing set of capacities for surviving together socially in larger-than-social environments), or in that they are not necessarily opposites (the accessibility of truth does not negate the possibility of power-in-itself, nor does the latter eliminate the possibility of truth).

If the dichotomies are overly schematic, the positions ascribed to notable thinkers – from Hobbes and Rousseau to Schmitt, Strauss, Žižek, Badiou, Lippmann, and Dewey – make for productive discussion. But they raise the question of whether or not these two axes ought to define political philosophy. Harman’s leap is to propose a new, third axis – that between human-only and human-plus-nonhuman – and then to point out that Latour’s innovation is precisely in charting out this third frontier and making it central to his work. The case for the novelty of this ‘Object Politics,’ as Harman calls it, is straightforward. None of the other thinkers Harman mentions make much of the nonhumans. This is not to say that such thinkers don’t exist: environmental philosophers like Val Plumwood and Arne Naess, animal ethicists like Peter Singer, Tom Regan, and Cary Wolfe, and even some better known for other work but whose forays into these areas are substantial (Haraway, Derrida, Macintyre, and others) have already paved the way for a political philosophy that makes space (and time) for nonhumans. But Harman’s task is not to make the case for these other thinkers, but for Latour. That case, alas, becomes a little muddy, in part because of the slipperiness of the word ‘object,’ which serves to obscure an important difference between Latour and Harman.  [Continued]

Adrian Ivakhiv (2015): Bruno Latour: reassembling the political, by Graham Harman, London, Pluto Press, 2014, 216 pp., £19.99 (paperback), ISBN 978-0745333991, Global Discourse: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Current Affairs and Applied Contemporary Thought, DOI: 10.1080/23269995.2015.1018663

To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/23269995.2015.1018663

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